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Central Park revival

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The conversation about what to do with a 160-acre chunk of public land in central Missoula has waxed and waned over the past decade. Grand plans have been floated to the public about establishing a "Central Park" that would encompass the Missoula County Fairgrounds, the YMCA, Spartan Park and Playfair, to name a few. Some designs included large lakes and arboretums, others featured throughways for Stephens Avenue and Pattee Creek Drive. None have made it past the PowerPoint and tagboard phase.

Last week, Missoula County commissioners signed a joint resolution officially establishing a partnership among the various city, county and public school landowners in the Central Park area. The lakes and roads and improved ball diamonds may still be a long way off, if they happen at all. But the new Central Park partnership does mark a renewed recognition that "we're all in this together," says County Commission Chair Michele Landquist.

Fairgrounds director Steve Earle says the Central Park concept was revived nearly a year ago during discussions of the fairground's ongoing master plan, developed by contractor Crandall Arambula. The conversation proved brief, Earle adds, but the directors of the various entities sharing the 160-acre plot agreed to meet with the goal of establishing a stronger, more official relationship.

"As we massage that Crandall Arambula plan to meet the needs of the fairgrounds itself," Earle says, "we need to look at what happens around us as we take the boundaries down so that we're not creating a single entity that's one-fourth of what should be a total public entity."

The partnership will likely also alleviate resource concerns for the city, the county, the YMCA and nearby schools. For example, Earle questions why those agencies would each need separate lawnmower fleets and maintenance barns when the property is largely contiguous. Sharing such resources would not only cut down on costs, Landquist says, but reduce the footprint of structures in Central Park.

It's still too early to tell how far the Central Park partnership will go, but the agencies involved have already identified several projects that could improve public access and connectivity. The partnership's first public meeting will take place at 5 p.m. April 29 at the fairgrounds as part of a grant-funded audit of parking space in the area. Earle says another goal could be to build a year-round trail through the property from South Avenue to 34th Street, and to establish a joint parking lot.

"There doesn't have to be a distinct property line," Earle says. "You can share a little bit and help each other."

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